Dear Soul Beings,
As I read these articles and quotes by Mohammed Ali, tears roll down my cheek.
“The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up.”
“The man with no imagination has no wings.”
This man, who shaped his own strength and freedom and also wrote a book, THE SOUL OF A BUTTERFLY, was the king of transformation. A poet, with physical strength, wisdom and intelligence. Sadly, I didn’t know that when I met him, back in 1969.
July, 1969. I am on a road trip with my family, driving from Detroit to Los Angeles in Volkswagen van. My father is driving. He wears a straw hat, sunglasses and pants that are too short, with red sneakers. He is smoking a corn cob pipe. My mother sits beside him, drinking a milk shake and reading the map. My sisters and I are squished in the middle, atop a makeshift platform bed. In the very back, are a collection of my dad’s paintings and drawings. We are headed to Brentwood, where family relatives will be hosting an art opening for him.
The ride is long and the days are filled with squabbles, food, bee stings and song. If we get bored, my sisters and I stand up and open the sliding roof while my dad drives. We make up songs and sing into the wind. Our throats are dry and our hair is wild but we are happy and free, waving to passing vehicles and checking out the different license plates.
When we arrive in Los Angeles, we are told we cannot stand and wave from the sliding roof anymore. It’s much too distracting. The traffic is a maze. I see more Porsches and Mercedes than I’ve ever seen in my life as we pull into Brentwood and find our cousin’s house. We are welcomed with open arms and I immediately fall in love with my older cousin Erica, or Ricky, as she is called. She is small and lithe, and imbued with warmth and enthusiasm. I feel awkward and young next to her native-born confident manner.
After the show, and much to my mother’s dismay, I go for a ride with Ricky and her boyfriend. “Let the Sun Shine In” is blaring through the speakers and they light up a joint. I politely decline but feel very grown up to be included. They mention a friend who had gotten busted and say, “You need to watch out for LA cops. They’re all pigs.” We change the subject to art and they tell me how much they love my dad’s work.
“Thanks!” I say. “Maybe my dad will get into a gallery here and we can move to LA!”
Little did I know back then, but my dad had sold two thirds of the paintings at the show, got commissions and a number of offers to join galleries. But he didn’t join them. He ran as fast as he could in the opposite direction. He was terrified of facing the public. Once, he was meant to lecture at my high school, on the school of futurism, but he never showed up. Later he told me, he had stage fright and couldn’t manage it and would I please never ask him to do that again.
I think it was the beatings he survived as a gifted child (supposedly meant to serve as discipline) that killed his confidence. But as I’m riding in the car with my older cousin, I don’t know any of that. I don’t know that my father is terrified and that we won’t be moving to California. I just think he is a great artist and I am proud to be his daughter. I am too self-absorbed to be looking for any subtext in his actions. In the moment I am feeling free, driving around the suburbs of LA.
The next stop on the road trip is Malibu. We stay with my dad’s cousin, a jazz singer. The house is up on stilts and about twenty feet from the beach. Day and night pass to the rhythm of the waves. Movie stars walk in and out of the house but I am not sure who they are. I am celebrating moments of freedom by the sea. By day we can see dolphins frolicking in the deep. At night, we sit around a camp fire watching the algae roll in and out of the waves. I imagine living here, being fed by the soul of nature and skirting waves of phosphorescent blue.
This is what happened next. I am invited to visit the TV set of DELLA! Hosted by Della Reese. (The husband of my dad’s cousin is her manager.) I am ushered in and introduced.
“Della, this is my cousin Amy, from Detroit. (Della was from Detroit, too). She is sixteen, (a lie, I was fifteen) and an aspiring actress and dancer.”
I smile and shake her hand but no words come out of my mouth.
Della says, “How nice to meet you. Say, why don’t we set up an improv with you and Sandy? Maybe something where you can add in a dance number? Hey, Sandy, come over here and meet Amy.”
She introduces me to Sandy Baron, whom I recognize from HEY LANDLORD. My belly sinks to my feet. I have no breath and my heart is beating like a wren’s. Now what do I do? I start pacing in the Green Room. Other people are drifting in and out. Standing in the doorway is a tall black man with piercing eyes. He scans the room. His glance rests momentarily on my face. I smile and turn away.
The next thing I know, he is standing in front of me, extending his hand.
“Hi. I’m Mohammed Ali. How do you do? Tell me your name.”
“Hi,” I say. “I’m Amy.”
I am in shock.
Then he says, “Amy, do I know you from somewhere? You look very familiar to me.”
“You look familiar, too,” I stammer. Of course he looks familiar, you idiot. He’s FAMOUS!!!
I want to throw my arms around him. He’s shot an arrow into my heart, but my knees are buckling. My fingers are electric. I fidget with my hair and shift my weight from one foot to the other. I wish I had worn jeans instead of these white shorts. I feel my father’s energy as if by osmosis and want to disappear. How could I possibly go on TV with Mohammed Ali? Do I really have anything to say? Who am I to think I could possibly be an actress? Who am I to think I could possibly be anything?
I say to Della, “I’m so sorry, but I cannot do this. I will wait here.”
“Don’t worry, child,” she says.
I think back to that time and wish I had spoken up. I wish I had said, “Mr. Ali, I want to stand in my own skin, like you. How do you do that? How do you summon your courage, your voice? What words of advice can you offer? How does one overcome fear of standing in the world?”
Mohammed Ali says, “The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up.”
I was still asleep at fifteen. My dreams were in the library, stacked like little soldiers on the shelf. What did it mean to be asleep? To me it means paralysis. It is the voice of fear that constricts and constrains. There is no power there. It is only now that my voice is beginning to rise up. Writing, painting, sculpting and conversation are the conduits.
To my daughter, I would say, as I say to myself, “Believe in your dreams. They are your gold. Life is short and precious. Go for it!”
“The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun…” W.H. Auden
Ali is missed, but his wisdom continues to inspire. What does it mean to you, soul beings, to wake up? Tell me! It is time for all of us to be awakened.